#560  Innovative Leader                 Volume 11, Number 9        September 2002

Acting on What Matters
by Peter Block

Mr. Block is partner, Designed Learning, a training company.  He is author of The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2002).  

There is something in the persistent question How? that expresses each person’s struggle between having confidence in their capacity to live a life of purpose and yielding to the daily demands of being practical.  It is entirely possible to spend our days engaged in activities that work well for us and achieve our objectives, and still wonder whether we are really making a difference in the world.  We have yielded too easily to what is doable and practical and popular.  In the process, we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts.  We find ourselves giving in to our doubts, and settling for what we know how to do, or can soon learn how to do, instead of pursuing what most matters to us and living with the adventure and anxiety that this requires.

I pick How? as a symbol simply because it is far and away the most common question I hear.  It has always struck me that I can write or speak the most radical thoughts imaginable.  I can advocate revolution, the end of leadership, the abolition of appraising each other, the empowerment of the least among us, and no one ever argues with me.  The only questions I hear are “How do you get there from here?  Where has this worked?  What would it cost and what is the return on investment?”  This has led me to the belief that the questions about How? are more interesting than any answer to them might be.  They stand for some deeper concerns. 

What is Worth Doing?

We often avoid the question of whether something is worth doing by going straight to the question “How do we do it?”  In fact, when we believe that something is definitely not worth doing, we are particularly eager to start asking How?  We can look at what is worth doing at many different levels:  As an individual I can wonder whether I can be myself and do what I want and still make a living.  For an organization I can ask for whose sake does this organization exist and does it exist for any larger purpose than to survive and be economically successful?  As a society, have we replaced a sense of community and civic engagement for economic well being and the pursuit of our private ambition?

Too often when a discussion is dominated by questions of How? we risk overvaluing what is practical and doable and postpone the questions of larger purpose and collective well being.  With the question How? we risk aspiring to goals that are defined for us by the culture and by our institutions, at the expense of pursuing purposes and intentions that arise from within ourselves.

If we were really committed to the pursuit of what matters, we might well be served to hold a moratorium on the question How?  There is an image I first heard from Jim Walker, a change-oriented executive and good soul, who was put in charge of a struggling AT&T business some years ago.  He used to ask, “What do you do when you find yourself in a hole?”  His answer was, “The first thing you do is stop digging.”  That stuck with me.  Most of the time, when something I am trying does not work, I simply try harder.  If I am trying to control a business, a project, or a relationship and it is falling, then I doggedly do more of what is not working.

If we could agree that for six months we would not ask How?, something in our lives, our institutions, and our culture might shift for the better.  It would force us to engage in conversations about why we do what we do, as individuals and as institutions.  It would create the space for longer discussions about purpose, about what is worth doing.  It would refocus our attention on deciding what is the right question, rather than what is the right answer.

It would also force us to act as if we already knew how—we just have to figure out what is worth doing.  It would give priority to aim over speed.   At some point we would either find the right question or grow weary of its pursuit, and we would be pulled into meaningful action, despite our uncertainty and our caution about being wrong.  It would support us in acting now, rather than waiting until the timing was right, and the world was ready for us.  We might put aside our wish for safety and instead view our life as a purpose-filled experiment whose intention is more for learning than for achieving and more for relationship than for power, speed, or efficiency.

This might elevate the state of not knowing to being an acceptable condition of our existence rather than a problem to be solved, and we might realize that real service and contribution come more from the choice of a worthy destination than from limiting ourselves to engaging in what we know will work.

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